By Paul Gardner
What the old North American Soccer League had, and what the new Major League Soccer does not have, was pizazz.
As the NASL is now dead and gone, while MLS is flourishing, what price pizazz? If it leads to extinction, then MLS is clearly better off without it. MLS has just completed its 15th season. It is an expanding league, it has 16 clubs, it will go up to 18 next season. We have Commissioner Don Garber’s word for it that MLS is a “healthy” league.
At the end of its own 15th season, in 1982, the NASL was anything but healthy. It had 14 teams -- but that was down from 24 teams in 1980. Ten teams had folded in just two years, and it was about to get worse, because two more disappeared before the 1983 season started, and at the end of the 1984 season, the league collapsed.
That is a direct comparison that should make MLS feel pretty good. It has proved a much more solidly grounded project than NASL. It’s easy now to look back at NASL and condemn it as a league that paid too much attention to image and not nearly enough to financial stability. A league that relied on pizazz to make a breakthrough into the mainstream of American pro sports.
The attempt, obviously, failed. But the pizazz angle is worth a close look. In the NASL, the pizazz came from the Cosmos. The two were one and the same thing. They created plenty of excitement and entertainment, and brought the league media coverage the likes of which soccer had never experienced in this country.
But what must not be overlooked is that the Cosmos, however much the glamour and glitz of the celebrity lifestyle surrounded them, were always a damn good soccer team. The huge crowds they drew to the Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey were rarely, if ever, disappointed by a poor game. There was always plenty of action and goals. It was an exciting experience -- it was always a fun place to be.
If we take that element -- the pizazz factor - and make another comparison with MLS, things do not turn out so well for MLS. It’s almost as though MLS has made the decision that pizazz = frivolity = failure. Therefore no pizazz. And, believe me, for the first 14 years of MLS existence, no pizazz was what the New York (and New Jersey, too) fans got.
In the very stadium in which the Cosmos used to glitter, the MetroStars and after them the Red Bulls were a grotesque reminder of more vibrant better days.
I’m not about to suggest that putting MLS on a sound financial footing is of no importance, but it is not a process that can ever come over as something enthralling. It’s an essential but -- from the sports point of view -- utterly dull component of the picture. We’ve now had 15 years of MLS trying to ensure financial security -- and if we take Garber at his word, it has done well in that area, it has produced a healthy league. In the process it has, perhaps inevitably, saddled itself with a drab corporate image. Concentrating on business matters will do that for you.
I get the impression that, each year when Garber gives us his state-of-the-league message, a staple ingredient is that sponsor dollars have increased. Good news, for sure. But pizazzy news? Hardly.
The pizazz that MLS needs must come from happens on the field. If MLS cannot afford to sustain a team like the Cosmos, it at least needs to offer a consistently exciting version of the sport. It is not good news that MLS has just completed a season in which its scoring rate was the lowest ever, at 2.46 goals per game. Garber did not mention that stat in his address, but he is obviously aware of it, and what it means.
As an overall indication of a league’s pizazz, goalscoring is a pretty good measure. But not quite everything. The Cosmos scored plenty of goals, but they scored them in great style. Cosmos goals were frequently memorable goals, highlight goals. It is an underlying ability to raise a whole 90-minute game of soccer to a high aesthetic level, punctuating it regularly with the climactic excitement of goalscoring, that creates the excitement that MLS is lacking.
The problem -- and the evidence of MLS awareness -- came together nicely during MLS Cup 2010 in Toronto. The game was won by the Colorado Rapids, who must be the worst team ever to win the title. They do, as it happens score goals. They were the second highest-scoring team in MLS. But they are still an almighty bore. Of the five goals that Colorado scored in the playoffs, not one had any outstanding soccer merit. The “climax” came with the goal that won them the title -- an own goal by a Dallas defender.
None of that will matter will to Colorado. But it should be a matter of deep concern to MLS that a team playing such primitive soccer should end up as the champions. When Gary Smith -- who happens, not incidentally, to be English -- took over as the Rapids coach in 2008, he told us that his aim was get the team playing like England’s Arsenal.
What he has produced is a team that doesn’t look anything like Arsenal. A team that is almost the very opposite of Arsenal. An unimaginative blue-collar team. That term, blue-collar, is not my description.
Both the Rapids’ defender Drew Moore, and the team’s technical director Paul Bravo used it after the final as a way of defining a strength of the Rapids. Conor Casey, rather more to the point, admitted that “it wasn’t the prettiest of games.”
An wild understatement, of course. But MLS is trying to do something about it. Garber has announced that a full-scale analysis of MLS soccer is under way. A European firm has been engaged to prepare a detailed documentation of every aspect of what happens on MLS fields -- all the throw-ins, the offsides, the goals, the saves, the substitutions and so on. It remains to be seen whether that approach -- which smacks of the corporate -- is the way to produce fine soccer.
But there can be no arguing with the intention: putting more pizazz into MLS soccer. Also, though MLS cannot say this, trying to make sure that we do not get a repeat performance of a team as banal as the Rapids turning the final into a boring, blue-collar brawl.